I am a miner. I dig in the good earth to pull out the riches that make other men wealthy. But this morning I dug into the earth to bury my young son. In the afternoon, after I am done sitting here for a while, I will bury his mother next to him. They won’t be alone. Tears will flow today. More families will be doing this gruesome task on this rock-strewn hill they call a cemetery. All told it seems the mine company guards killed 16 men, women and children. Cold winds are whipping over from the mountains, hitting me in the face like death itself. I will go on. I have to. There are people that have to pay for this. My name is Hans Gunther.
We came here to Colorado like everyone else, to work and hopefully prosper so we could move on to a better life. Mining is in my blood. Doesn’t matter what it is, coal or copper. I left Pennsylvania in the spring of 1913 with my wife Hilde and our young son Johann and followed others to where, according to the company agent in our town, riches could be found by people like us. I should have known better.
What we found was the Clear Creek Mine camp. It is a small mine with a squalid camp surrounded by high hills and rock outcroppings. Most of the trees have been cut down for building shacks and for firewood. It is a desolate looking place. The shacks for the 60 or so miners, some with families, are situated at the bottom of a hill where runoff from rain makes life miserable. The tents are even worse, drafty and leaky, but it is better than being outside in the elements. Working conditions are bad, the hours long and the mine guards treat us and our families worse than they treat the pack mules. They don’t like us because we are immigrants and they make fun of how we talk. The pay the company agent promised never came to be. Pay cuts seemed to be all they want.
The superintendent of the mine is Franklin Pearson. He is a cold-hearted man who simply does the bidding of the nameless and unseen owners of this mine. He came from the east too, Boston it is said, but his world is vastly different from the world we come from.
The mine guards walk around with guns. There had been trouble in this camp before. Last year an organizer from the Western Federation of Miners had snuck into the camp to talk the workers into joining the union. Of course, there is always someone who goes against his fellow workers. The organizer was pointed out and the mine guards shot him on the orders of the superintendent and sent his body back to the union office in town as a warning. The mine owners are the law around here.
We still met in secret in our tents and ramshackle dwellings making sure only sympathetic men attended. The women kept the fires going, fed the children and looked on with worry as we discussed our demands. It wasn’t much. A few cents increase in wages, a 10% increase in the tonnage rate and better treatment from the mine guards. The meetings brought us together and we felt like people again.
The bosses don’t like it when the people organize. They have been fighting us for years, centuries even. They fought my father in the mines in Germany, used the army against the people. He left our country thinking it would be different in America. We found out it wasn’t.
So I sit here saying goodbye to my son and think back on what happened here.
We had finished our shift in the mine and were walking back to our colony of tents and huts. Even though it was October, it felt like winter was coming early to this section of the mountains. Dark clouds and the sputtering of sleet in our faces drove us forward to our homes. The mud was freezing into ruts from wagons, mules, and people, making it hard to walk. We were so tired from working in the mine that we could barely hang on to our pickaxes. We could see the smoke from our meager dwellings puncturing the sky. The women and some of the younger children were putting together our supper. Others were hauling water from the creek to put over the fires so we could wash up. The older boys walked with us. They were doing their time in the mines just like us.
Most of the mine guards walked around keeping an eye on us but a few were missing. One, in particular, Josiah Crawford, always gave the miners trouble. He would yell profanities at us going to and back from work. It was never-ending. His torment was worse than the black flies that plagued us. He would hang around the tents watching our women while we worked in the mine. Today he was not in sight. It was then that we heard a commotion and a woman scream from one of the tents.
Dominic Putrino ran towards the tent. It was his that the commotion came from. He threw open the flap and saw Josiah Crawford molesting his wife as his young daughter cried out in terror. In a rage, Dominic brought his pickaxe down on Josiah’s head killing him instantly.
A mine guard shouted out that Josiah had been killed and that is when the guards rushed to the tent. We shielded Dominic and his family from their wrath. The mine guards pulled the body of Josiah out and carried it to the outskirts of our colony all the while yelling that we would pay for this. They set the body down, lined up and aimed their rifles at us, while a few of them walked towards Dominic.
But blood lust had boiled up in the miners too and we couldn’t see straight. All the mistreatments, the bullying, and the poor working conditions had festered. Even though we had no guns we weren’t going to let them take Dominic. Our tiredness had faded away. This was it. No more would we take.
As two of the guards moved forward to take Dominic we raised our pickaxes. We pushed the older boys behind us. The mine guards raised their Springfield rifles and started shooting into the line of miners and the colony.
A few men fell dead right away. Dominic was one of them. I dropped to the ground. Bullets ripped into the tents and huts. Some unlucky women and children that were watching were cut down too.
In what had amounted to only seconds our families and our lives were shattered. The guards stopped their shooting. The sound of the gunfire echoed off the hills and faded away. I lifted myself and rushed to my hut to find that bullets had pierced it and killed my wife and son. I dropped to my knees and gathered their lifeless bodies to my own. I could not breathe. I wanted to scream out but I couldn’t. Outside wailing and cries of anguish swept through the colony.
The mine guards retreated to the perimeter of the colony but kept their rifles pointed at us. Some yelled that they would finish us off. The superintendent of the mine ran out of his shack and headed towards the colony after hearing the volley of gunfire. He tried to calm everything down. He needed workers, not more corpses. An uneasy truce started.
The superintendent went back to his shack and sent a rider to town to get reinforcements, unsure of what we might do next.
What we did was gather the dead.
Miners are a close-knit group. When you work together in the bowels of the earth you rely on each other and become like brothers. Today we would all become brothers in mourning. We held the wakes in the tents of the dead. We washed the blood off them and dressed them in their best clothes, clothes they never could wear at Clear Creek Mine. Dominic’s wife Maria dressed her daughter, who also fell, and then her husband in their finest and wept. We would mourn tonight and then we would bury them in the morning.
I looked up from my son’s grave and saw Kevin Sullivan.
“Sorry for your loss, Hans.”
I nodded at him.
Kevin was not a married man so he had no family here. He was also one of those that was sympathetic to organizing for better pay and conditions.
“We sent Billy O’Shea to the union office in town to tell them what happened. He just got back. I will help you bury Hilde and then we will talk with the others.”
We finished the grave and put my Hilde in it. Kevin stood to the side. I threw the last bit of gravel and dirt on top of the mound and broke down in tears and cursed the guards, the mine owners, and the superintendent, damning them all to hell.
I turned to Kevin, “We go see Billy and find out what to do.” My grief was turning into rage and determination.
The meeting was in a tent in the back of the colony. The sun was setting so it made it easier for us to remain hidden from the guards who stayed a good distance back, unsure of what we might do. Some men were coming out of the tent as Kevin and I arrived.
The tent belonged to Heinrich Fischer. He suffered no tragedy the day before. He was one of the lucky ones.
“Hello, Sullivan.” He turned to me. “Hans, I am truly sorry for what happened to your family. Others here share in your grief having laid their own to rest.”
“We sent Billy into town to tell the union what happened. The union tried to send a telegram to let the national leadership know but the mining company owns the telegraph station and wouldn’t let it go through. So for right now, we are on our own.” He rubbed his fingers through his dark beard, pausing to collect his thoughts. “I know some want to leave this hell hole behind even though their families now rest in the cemetery. Others want revenge.”
I spoke up. “I buried my Hilde and Johann today. They are with the earth and God now. I will always have their memories. But I will also have memories of the murderers that did this. We all know there is no law here for us. The law is the mine company law. I want justice, miner’s justice.”
Others murmured in agreement.
Billy spoke up. “I told the union that the superintendent was sending a rider to gather reinforcements. They sent someone out right away to waylay the rider but that doesn’t leave us much time. They also said they have been collecting rifles because a war has been breaking out at other mines across the state. The Governor has said there is an insurrection by the miners going on and he would be declaring martial law.”
“Can we get the rifles, Billy?” I said.
“They said they would send a wagon up Hans. Should be here soon. And they said we should leave this place and join others that are gathering at Ludlow. Things are hot there too.
“We will leave here but there is some unfinished business,” I said.
At 2:00 am word was passed that the rifles and ammunition arrived a half mile from the camp. We went in two’s so as not to arouse the guards and brought the rifles and ammunition back to the colony. I stood at the head of the line for my rifle. Behind me, Dominic’s wife Maria took one too. The union also sent something extra in case we needed it.
The morning broke bright and crisp. I had a fitful night. Our last planning meeting was at 5:00 am. It was now 7:00 am. Men were coming out of their dwellings and we gathered to walk to the mine like we always did. But this time, other than the dead, some of us were missing. I whispered to the others, “Remember the plan. Let the guards think we are defeated.” We kept our heads down. We looked downtrodden and dejected.
As the guards lined up near us they looked around puzzled.
One of them said, “We didn’t kill that many did we?”
Out of tents and shacks came miners armed and determined. They quickly surrounded the guards and disarmed them. From the superintendent’s shack, three miners wearing masks made from flour bags were pushing Franklin Pearson ahead of them.
“You won’t get away with this. I have reinforcements coming from town.”
“Don’t count on it,” snarled one of the miners.
“March them all off to the mine,” I yelled.
We pushed them forward. It took a lot of inner strength on the part of some who lost family to the guard’s massacre not to put them down right there.
“What are you going to do to us?” the superintendent demanded with a look of apprehension.
“We are going to see what kind of miners you are,” I said flatly.
Franklin Pearson looks quizzically at me.
“You took my family away from me,” said Maria. “Now we give you miner’s justice.”
We stood in front of the mine. I took my pickaxe and threw it in. Others followed until the mouth of the mine held all our pickaxes.
“Go in,” I said to the Superintendent and guards. Miners aimed their rifles at them to ensure they did.
“Go way in and you better run,” yelled Maria, pointing her rifle at them.
Kevin Sullivan stepped forward and lit the long fuse of the dynamite that was sent by the union as a present in case we needed it. We did. We had miners line the mouth of the mine with it during the night.
Franklin Pearson and the guards ran to the far reaches of the mine. The spark of the lit fuse snaked its way to the dynamite as the miners and their families ran to a safe distance.
The explosion echoed off the hills, louder than the rifle shots heard the day before that took so many lives. The mouth of the mine collapsed and rock dust filled the air
I looked over at Maria. “Miners Justice.”
“If they are any good they will free themselves. If not, God will understand.” She shrugged her shoulders and turned away from the mine.
“We must leave here and meet up with the others,” I said.
Heinrich Fisher called out. “Gather your belongings, leave what you don’t need. We go soon.”
Billy stepped over to Heinrich and me.
“Some of us are going to leave the state. If they get out of that tomb or if others come here to find out what is going on we will certainly be marked men. So we will say goodbye to you now.”
Men and families said their goodbyes to each other and gathered their few possessions.
We turned the mules and horses loose. We didn’t want to add horse-stealing to the mine owner’s list of grievances towards us.
I went up to the small cemetery to say goodbye to my Hilde and Johann. Others were there too. It will always be our hill of sorrow, etched in our minds forever no matter where we are.
I take one last look at Clear Creek Mine and like the others, I turn my back and walk away. Winter is coming and will be cold but Spring will follow.